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INTEL – Parts I and II

March 28, 2011

Part I

Soon after I got out of Lakeside, I was hustling the energy to create a full solo on-call working situation, freeing myself from 20 years of doing just the opposite. I needed a change in how I went about utilizing my resume, as L.A. is not a town where experience matters. Discrimination runs rampant with the help wanted wording, interviewing, and asking for headshots and gender. They slide by with evasion loopholes that do just enough to cover their asses. They don’t care.

The managers and owners here ask for experience and knowledge, but hire youth and image. The glorified model-like high-end version of hiring titties for taverns!  But that’s pretty much most of L.A. in a nutshell, although I hope it’s changed a little for the better over the years. Half the time if not more, the interview process can slowly become a mild exercise in sucking up, all depending on the degree of get-along and similar wavelengths with both understanding what’s needed. Otherwise, an insult to one’s experience, and an embarrassing gauge of inaccuracy of a person’s capabilities can occur, especially if the conducting interviewee has less or a different position of experience than who they’re hiring. Then it becomes a battle uphill to secure fair ground, aside from the fact that when it comes to bartenders, action and production of service behind the bar always speaks louder than words.

I don’t have a problem with it as much as I just wish they’d learn how to hire a preferred combination of both experienced and inexperienced, blending the two for optimum floor fusion and for educational/training purposes. L.A. for the most part is still a bit dysfunctional in the important areas such as future industry progress. The city the NRA wants to stay away from. This is why L.A. has the hardest time getting its shit together, lagging behind for superficial reasoning, with no set of standards or minimums in place to insure the risk of smooth running.

Currently, however, there is a new organization in town and in eight states throughout the country called the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles. Their mission is dedicated to winning improved conditions for restaurant workers everywhere. It’s a good re-start, and hopefully they’ll succeed with many of their positive actions for us all. To visit them online, their website is www.rocunited.org

There I was, the whole package, covering all four of the main ingredients youth to knowledge. I mean, Christ, I was like a modern day version of Dorian Gray but without the dark side, at that time anyway! Middle managers (are there any of those left?) can be intimidated by the experience of others. You can feel it when the air of silence and fear between the word exchange gets heavier and slower of pace. They’ll never admit it of course, and so we both lose out. The best managers to work with are the ones where it doesn’t have to be their ideas to implement. Improvements can get done quicker. And they’re the ones preaching teamwork!

I don’t want their jobs of 50-hour misery. Been there, done that, more than once, no longer interested, thank you very much, now read between the lines and understand I want the bar and nothing else. Get it, good. However, I fault myself back then to ignore when the ad says minimum of 1-2 years experience, of which most of them post like bad standard practice. It pretty much tells you the experience level of the people in charge, who for the most part really did nothing more than just grab a job themselves. These ads also use those all-telling hype words like “Dynamic”, “Energetic”, “Career-Minded”, and “Team Player”, but you can only prove those attributes in action, when you turn the switch on. Otherwise, it’s like a clown jumping through hoops of fire in a small, cluttered office, you know, where the imposters succeed, and then fail on the floor. No thanks, I’ll pass. There are some places where it may just be better to avoid working in.

Imagine if the ad requested a minimum of 10 years experience. This would help alleviate the filtering to the bottom, and would actually pull a bar team of substantial, collective intelligence together in one house, like a sports team. A combination of players who have the experience and knowledge to spread out the floor, that also provides a depth of stimulation with something to say. Customers of all ages have a proven appreciation for that. But managers have a tendency to shoot high and aim low, choosing the narrow and unproven road many times over the wider scope of vision, where they may fear some loss of control. They’ll play it to their version of safe and in charge, hiring the desperate youth who have far less experience to offer. All in all, it’s better to have the right mix of individuals behind the bar, having newcomers learn from the advanced bar men and women.

Tenure works for you only once in a while, either through a connection in, or when you luckily run into an individual with that rare quality and respectable insight into a person’s best interests at heart for the establishment. L.A. is big and spread out, so that adds to fewer people knowing each other from various places of work. Sometimes the excuse of over-qualification can rear its ugly head, but in my opinion, there’s no such thing as being over-qualified when it comes to working behind the bar. Not today, not ever.

The problem with my resume is not padding it, it’s reducing it down to an acceptable level to be seen, called in, or considered. There’s no possible way I could put close to 30 years of bar experience on a 1-pager. It would have to be a minimum of 2-3 pages. But then, that becomes intimidating to some. Only in our industry does more experience equate to less work, so be careful how much you gain, as you may have to hide some of it depending on the seeking venue. I’m just not revealing everything, not if it doesn’t work in my favor. I have to pick and choose while doing the best I can to get a feel for them. Are they open to someone with my level of work history? Should I keep my published works in the industry magazines off the resume? How do I get the job without losing the job from innocently intimidating the chiefs?  The endless chess moves for employment. That’s all we need, a layer of grief on top of the stress cake.

Though the industry could use a restructuring of its hiring and filtering practices to acquire the best staff possible, it’ll never happen. Hospitality is just too big, therefore fractioned to the core. And with the association’s lobbying powers in Washington to keep things the same and greater unity away as they side with the owner’s preferences to keep cheap and pay $2 or $3 an hour to tipped workers in Colorado and a few other states and/or establishments that enforce it with ruthless abandon. We are so thankful for your care and concern for the well-being of your own!

If ever there was an industry in need of a Dexter to clean up all the wrong doings, screw-jobs, the mass of unfair practices, life and economic ruining, and to straighten out the never-ending mecca of fucked-up, cocaine and ego-driven ownership and management that gravitate here to the land of make-believe, it’s Food and Beverage. I promise, if you let me shape-shift into this dark-of-night Mad Hatter character, I’ll do my best to complete the necessary and way overdue repairs in one season . . . . . or two if it’s fun!

So I moved on from all these years of soil and toil, temporary stabilities, and living with uncertainties. Everybody faces it in this business if you’re in it long enough, but you grow tired of it. It wasn’t easy leaving Lakeside, as it was a beautiful property and club with a great bunch of members, and I was taken good care of while employed there. But each year, they seemed to be slowly reducing events and activities, and it got to a point where the energy of the club started to dissipate from the busy environment we were used to. The shift schedule reduced a little, and with the other bartenders having been there for so many years, with their seniority, there was nowhere to move up. It became time to go. On the last night there, I closed up the bar close to 11:00pm, with a few members still playing poker in the card room, and walked out into the mist of the November rain and the lighted darkness of the near-empty parking lot, waved goodbye to the guard at the security gate, and never returned.

To this day, though, I still talk with my executive chef friend who was at the club during that time, who’s moved on to a GM position at a Marriot property down in the Newport Beach area, as well as chatting with the Lakeside GM from the same time, and of course, bartender Bruce Heighley. In fact, for a few years after, I even bartended private parties at the member’s homes. Though the change in the activity level at the club is true, something else happened that coupled with my departure, but I promised not to speak about it. It’s been 9 years, no sense in cracking now.

 

Part II

My solo work started to grow pretty well, and I gained more contacts with almost every gig. If you do good work and show your professionalism with service, it usually leads to getting more. I have my business cards and pens to make sure they don’t forget. Most people in L.A. don’t operate with the best long-term memory, so one must permeate like an alien virus, but in a good way. I was also back on full-time availability with Tabi at Tender Bartenders, whose service is the longest-running in town, some 30 years now or more, where she has these old, classic clients. I also went back on regular call at the Hollywood Palladium and The Gardenia.

Soon into 2003, I got hooked up with a man named George at the Encino Banquet and Gardens for more on-call work. However, this property was primarily St. Mary’s Parish, an Assyrian church located on Lindley Avenue in the Reseda/Tarzana area, just a few miles down the 101 from where I live. Always a good find! George was the Pastor/Bishop there, but I also dealt with him when it came to booking me on the bar for a variety of events. The banquet room and gardens are located in the back half of the property, not visible to the street, but not hiding either. It’s an advertised venue. He has the whole shebang there, a huge event space that holds 300, good portable bars, an ice machine in the kitchen, and a liquor cage to house what the client buys. In this new position I was now creating for myself, I realized that hustling and hunting go along with the job description, building a good reputation along the way, and branching out wherever I could.

One day I get a message from George to work a wedding and reception, and that he has a caterer coming in who needs an extra bartender. For the first time I was introduced to Bobby, the owner of Bahador, a Persian catering company out of Tarzana as well. After a busy night with the bars under control and flow, he asked for my card. This was beginning to work. I was soon booking gigs with him a little more regularly, filling in any open dates, but I not only had to teach him to call me with as much advance notice as possible, due to bookings from other outfits, but had to bring him up to speed with my bar knowledge from an operational standpoint, so he would have what I needed behind the bar, aside from the big bar kit that I bring in with me. He had to understand how to make the bar an initial source of focus and placement at parties, instead of it being shoved over in a corner or off the beaten path somewhere, not easily seen. People want to know where the bar is, and they want it convenient. His primary thing was food, so I understood where he was at.

I still had my long hair at that time, which he thought had some unique quality to it when it came to working his private events within the Persian community in the valley and in Beverly Hills. It was only another year or so when after many years of having the mane, I finally cut it all off. Thinking of just a partial trim at first, I gave way so I could gather the more than a foot of strands in a large Ziploc and send it to Locks of Love in Florida for cancer patients, which was my second time in doing so. It has to be 10 inches or longer, or they don’t accept it. At one of his gigs I’m on later in the week, I came in through the side gate of the house. I didn’t tell him about the barber encounter. He’s in the house, and I’m setting up the bar outside. I have a hat and sunglasses on, semi-disguised. About half an hour later he walks out of the house with some back stock product for the bar, and almost drops the case in shock. He said “Kyle, is that you? What happened? Why did you cut your hair . . . you lost your power!” I started laughing. He says “No, really, your hair was your power”. I said “Yes, I know, but it was time for a change. I’ll grow it back sometime again”. There is a truth to what he said, but you only notice it when you have it really long and then cut it down to just an inch or two.

I also felt at the time that the hair image in L.A. was changing again, back to a shorter look and preference, whether it be a clean look and shave, or the semi-mod shadow and mess o’hair look of today’s generation, a slight difference from the British mod look of the late 70’s/early 80’s. Again, with so many different types of venues and outfits available to work out of, it was best to stay somewhat within the overall visual image of approval.

(This is the original Mod look. Me in 1973, graduation from Woodard Jr. High School in Arizona)

Sometime after I made the cut to short and easy, I noticed a change in how some of the Persian men were treating me. I had always gotten along well with the women. The women have a beauty about them that is staggering. They’re the jewels of the Middle East. But the guys seemed to be looking at me with a question mark, yet nice with communication. Some would stare, look back to their friends and chat, and so on. I could see it peripherally, and became curious myself. I had felt this feeling before. Was it my demeanor? Then, a memory dawned on me.

When I was hired in 94’ at Café Bellissimo near where I live, I was invited to one of the owner’s birthday party/dinner before the night of business at the restaurant got going. This was a Sicilian-owned establishment, so when I arrived from walking across the boulevard, both Tony and Emilio looked me over for some seconds. I was still fairly new and hadn’t quite got to know everyone yet. Greetings and some light chat ensued, and it came down to the owner-brothers wondering if I was wired, carrying and working undercover for some level of law enforcement/secret service, as it was mentioned with only half-humor. Comically bewildered, I let them know I was clean and not who they thought I might have been. Hard to remain normal at that point, but I did my best to fit in with everyone else, though it took a while for the surprise to leave my face. I ended up working with them for five years, trust gained. Emilio didn’t like me too much, though I gave him no reason for it. It’s just one of those things you can’t do much about, so I kept my distance to avoid tangle, his wife Kelly kept me on, and Tony moved me over with him when he opened up the Thousand Oaks restaurant.

A little note of interest that most of you would never connect – Emilio Bellissimo was also Tony Valentino, the lead guitarist of the 60’s L.A. punk garage band, The Standells. Their smash hit “Dirty Water” in 1966 went to #11 on the charts. The original members got together and performed at Game 2 of the World Series at Fenway Park in 2004. The original organist for the band, Larry Tamblyn, his brother, the actor Russ Tamblyn, played the role of Riff, the gang leader of the streetwise Jets in the musical film of West Side Story. Russ was discovered at the age of 10 by Lloyd Bridges. Russ’ daughter is the actress, Amber Tamblyn. Today, I believe Emilio still lives right down the street from me, literally, about 20 houses down. I think he’s pretty much retired now. If you delve into Hollywood and L.A. enough, you’ll see a small world of a 100-year string of people who know each other.

(This classic video clip of The Standells, you’ll notice the band being introduced at the beginning by Vince Edwards (TV’s Ben Casey) from the Hollywood Palace in 1966. Vince’s daughter, Devera, and I have been friends for close to 20 years, going back to the Denim & Diamonds nights of the early 90′s on Ocean Park in Santa Monica when we were the hottest club in L.A.)

Cafe Bellissimo was a pair of singing-server restaurants. The only other one in town was Miceli’s in Studio City. I’m sure with Emilio and Tony’s musical backgrounds, it was a good way to get the surrounding valley community together and discover some great new talent, of which they did very well over the years. It’s always nice to give back!

Though, three years in when I was at Tony’s Café B in Thousand Oaks, something similar happened. An older guy started coming in during late afternoons for some wine and a small bite at the bar. He was one of those occasional regulars. As we talked several times over a stretch of months, and even in depth when time allowed before the main rush, he let me know he was retired CIA. I started asking him questions about his field of work out of curiosity. His responses weren’t always direct with the questions, but he answered safely enough. He did let me know that Thousand Oaks was home to the most retired high-level law enforcement officials in the country, guessing CIA/FBI, along with the most retired Mafia/Mob bosses. Either they never stop watching each other, or they’re in cahoots. I thought that was an interesting piece of information, but found it an almost impossible stat to verify as well. At another time, he let me know that if I ever wanted to consider going to work, I would have to learn three specific languages. One of them was Gaelic, but can’t remember the other two, though I probably have them written down in some pile of notes from the past.

The Persian Men were doing the same thing to me, but a bit more subtle. Over the course of the five years where I was working many gigs in the community, there was the occasional verbal inquiry at the bar in regards to some thinking I was working undercover there too. I guess I just have this look and disposition about me that steers them in that direction of thought. I still work gigs for them today here and there, but not through Bobby, as something happened between him and his tribe, and they’ve been on the outs for a few years now, with catering. Most of them are Iranian, but the Armenians and Israeli’s like me to work their parties too, though I end up getting the same watchful eyes at times. They’re all different experiences, and I always win as long as I can prove myself, building trust over a length of time.

Persians know how to throw a party. They don’t mess around. I enjoy a good time with them. They have their bands or DJ’s, and they do their traditional dancing and singing. It’s wonderful to see. Funny, even though they’re rich and have these amazing homes all over Beverly Hills, they still try to price-down gig/service fees like they’re buying goods at a flea market. They’re super nice people, but I guess some things never change no matter where you live. It just doesn’t fit their wealth, and would look much better on them if they adjusted our American tipping custom into their dealings. But to penny-pinch with human/guest services while they spend $10,000 and more on floral decora for one night is a bit out of balance. You get to watch them become these image queens and kings, and that’s all that matters, outdoing each other party to party. They enjoy themselves and have a good time too, like all partygoers, and beyond it all, my job at these many events is simply what it is as well.

Bobby told me a long time ago that Persian Muslims will tip, but Persian Jews do not, so I made sure to set my fees accordingly, not relying on either! With this simple method of set-up, it really doesn’t matter where I work. I can get along with everyone. With certain private parties depending on the occasion, I prefer the straight-up fee with no bar-top tipping, no jar. It just takes the issue off the table, and many times it’s to the client’s preference for them to tip at the end. The good thing is many of their get-togethers are on weeknights, as they party by their own tradition and holidays. I’ll take the gig and move on with no complaints, as I make different monies at various venues and outfits of work anyway, so it’s always changing.

They prefer good American bartenders, male or female, working their many parties, while at the same time some of their big business people of the community wonder if I’m straight up with them, or if I’m pulling double-duty undercover. The last time I was confronted at the bar was a New Years Eve party a couple years ago, up in the hills off of Sunset Boulevard. With my clean look, I must be the perfect type in their eyes who could pull off such a thing, and long-term. Three of them approached the bar and said “Are you sure you’re not working undercover?” Another says “You look like you could be working undercover for, you know, as CIA or FBI agent or something!” Again, I chuckle and say “No, I don’t do that sort of thing. I’ve been working LA bars for years. What makes you think that?” They said “You just have this whole thing about you that makes us wonder. But we like you, you’re good”. I must look too professional when I get it done behind the bar for them. Maybe it looks a little too good, like a form of department-trained over-compensation.

When they mention that sort of risky inquiry, though, it can make them look just as suspicious, like they have something to hide, always looking over their shoulder like there in some espionage thriller, curious if an agent/operative of big brother is watching from the bar, and I’m the spy! It must be the way of the world in the Middle East, where anyone in any position is capable of gathering intelligence. These parties are also part-in-place of how they go about conducting business in corner areas where they can’t be heard, as well as in the middle of the loud Persian music that goes on for hours. However, I would have to know their language of Farce in order to pick up on anything, and I would have to be wired for sound on top of it all. Luckily, I’ve never been frisked yet! Pretty ballsy of them though, to put me on the stand right before the party started. Then again, what if I was?

This thought brings Lakeside back once more for an encore, where I used to serve drinks to the L.A. head of the FBI for the years I was there. That time was just before I went into freelance, working privately on-call. Now that I think about it, I hope it wasn’t the reason why Bobby fell out of catering popularity with his own people. However, I’ve talked with him on the phone a few times in the last couple years. It’s always good to catch up with him. Bobby is a really good guy. But most of his catering has always been through the big hotels, which is how he started up. Always busy, always hustling, at a point I think he may have just ran into a case of over-extend with his catering company, trying to handle all that was coming in, because the money is right there on the table. Things can fall through the cracks and quality can suffer a little bit. I remember a couple times where he probably hadn’t slept for a few days.

Such is life in big city food and beverage . . . and other things . . . !

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One Comment
  1. Good story!

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